Today in 1798, 25-year-old Isaac Hull, who was destined to become one of the United States’ most famous heroes of the War of 1812, began his distinguished career in the Navy after accepting a commission as a 4th Lieutenant aboard the U.S. frigate Constitution.
Born in 1773 in Derby, Connecticut, young Isaac was raised by his uncle William Hull, a hero of the Revolutionary War, after his father, who also fought in the war, died from health complications stemming from his imprisonment aboard one of the British Army’s notoriously hellish prison ships. At age 14, Isaac gave up the chance to attend Yale College in favor of becoming a cabin boy on a merchant vessel. Within five years, the talented young seaman found himself in command of his own ship, participating in the lucrative West Indies trade.
In 1798, on his 25th birthday, Hull accepted a commission as a fourth Lieutenant in the newly re-organized United States Navy, which came with a posting to the service’s brand-new frigate USS Constitution. Over the next several years, Hull steadily rose through the ranks. After distinguishing himself in both the Barbary Wars and Quasi-War with France, he was given command of the Constitution. Shortly after war was declared between the United States and Great Britain in June of 1812, Hull gained national fame by engaging a British frigate, the HMS Guerriere, in a fierce naval battle on the open sea, 400 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In a bold and daring move, Hull commanded the Constitution’s gunners to hold their fire — in spite of relentless cannonading from the British — until the American frigate had maneuvered herself directly alongside the Guerriere. Then, on Hull’s signal, the Constitution opened fire at point-blank range, demolishing the British warship and forcing the surrender of its entire crew. Amazingly, despite Hull’s putting his ship directly in the line of fire, the Constitution suffered minimal damage, earning her the nickname “Old Ironsides.”
Captain Isaac Hull was welcomed back to American shores as a hero, and even his natal state of Connecticut — home to some of the most ardent anti-war sentiments in the entire country — couldn’t resist joining in the celebration of its famous native son. Newspapers boasted of Hull’s bravery, and etchings and mezzotints depicting the famous sea battle could be found on virtually every city street corner.
Ironically, the same war that saw Isaac Hull lionized as a hero saw William Hull, the uncle who had raised him, court martialed, convicted of cowardice, and sentenced to death by firing squad, after he surrendered the American garrison at Detroit to the British without firing a single shot in the frontier fort’s defense. (William Hull’s cowardly surrender took place on August 16, 1812, only three days before his nephew’s celebrated naval victory.) Though President Madison later set aside William Hull’s death sentence, his reputation was permanently shattered, and the shame of the surrender followed him to his death.
His nephew Isaac Hull’s fame and prestigious career arc continued unabated, however, and the heroic naval commander subsequently found himself in charge of the Portsmouth, Charleston, and then Washington Naval Yards, while intermittently serving as Captain of various Navy ships. Finally, in 1841, Isaac Hull was forced to retire from the Navy due to ill health, and he bowed out of the service after a long and distinguished career at the age of 68.
One of Connecticut’s most famous Navy heroes, and the man who put the iron in Old Ironsides, first reported for duty, today in Connecticut history.
Carolyn Ivanoff, “Fame and Infamy for the Hulls of Derby,” connecticuthistory.org
“Isaac Hull,” U.S Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command